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Let’s record the heroes of the global pandemic

When there’s a crisis on, sometimes you just have to laugh out loud. 

The best cartoon I have seen depicting the pandemic situation (by Arghxsel) showed a hungry wolf facing a herd of sheep, and looking perplexed. “You know that I am a wolf,” he asks the sheep. “Why won’t you run away?” Because “there are no wolves,” answers one sheep. “We rely on herd immunity,” bleats another. “Only the old and sick are attacked by a wolf,” justifies a third sheep.

The wolf doesn’t care about the beliefs of sheep. It just eats them. The coronavirus doesn’t care about your beliefs or mine. It doesn’t care whether you took it seriously or you laughed it off. It doesn’t care about your theories about the correct societal response. It just tries to find you, enter your body, and take over your cells. It is a simple creature, interested in simple replication.

Last week I wrote about our lack of impulse control when confronted by the coronavirus. So many of us simply cannot adjust our behaviours to befit a global crisis. We want 2020 to be just like 2019. We want to feel normal and OK and do the same-old the same way. Well, guess what: even most of 2021 won’t feel like 2019.

There are, of course, reasons to be sceptical and circumspect about this pandemic. Are some people exaggerating the danger for personal gain? Tick. Do scientists themselves disagree on the best approach? Tick. Are some immoral skunks stealing funds and equipment intended for the poor? Tick. 

But so what, folks? By this time, have we not all had the virus come close to us – and even take some of our nearest and dearest? Do you want to engage in barroom debates to justify your impulses, or do you want to protect yourself and your community and nation?

Nonetheless, just as some behaviour disappoints, there is also plenty in humanity’s response to the pandemic to admire. This week, let me enumerate those who have filled me with admiration.

First, the scientists. They have produced vaccines in record-breaking time – a truly phenomenal achievement. Vaccines are our only clear path out of this morass. Many heroic back-room figures have applied their knowledge and intelligence around the clock to get us closer to an end-point. We must applaud.

Next, I look on with great admiration at the quality governments of this world. There are not many, but some of them have quietly got on with the job of containing and mitigating this pandemic. They have behaved sensibly; they have been resolute and organized; they have boosted their medical capacity; and now they are preparing for vaccines. They have protected those whose livelihoods collapsed. They have acted in the common interest, not that of the politicians of the day. They have got on with the difficult business of protecting their citizens and their economies without drama. Their leaders do not seek the headlines; they just lead their people. Kudos.

Third, the strategist in me is filled with high respect for those organizations that have responded with principle and with agility to this huge challenge. Those who quickly binned their old business plans and targets and accepted this time as requiring a fresh approach; those who have reorganised themselves overnight rather than inflict undue danger on their people; those who said safety first, and meant it; those who have learned new skills and practices at speed; those who have seen this crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot their businesses and make them fit for a post-pandemic world.

Fourth, who can fail to show enormous gratitude to the world’s medical fraternity? Where would we be without the first responders, the nurses, the hospital workers and the doctors? They take enormous personal risks on our behalf; they are there to treat and save millions of lives. Even when the dimwitted, impulse-driven behaviour of the multitudes escalates the danger to them; even when governments fail to support them; they show up and do what’s needed.

Lastly, a word of appreciation for the kind and the compassionate amongst us. Humanity may show its worst side in a crisis; but it also reveals its best. I have seen folks go out of their way to help the distressed. I have seen (some) bosses take big pay cuts rather than send people home unnecessarily; I have seen remarkable concern and kindness flow out of ordinary people.

Can we not all aim to be like this – quietly heroic? Calm and rational; flexible and adaptable; accepting of inconvenience and impediment; acting with compassion for the greater good? Or is that too much to ask?

(Sunday Nation, 6 December 2020)

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